Being down don't bother me.
I'm gonna take all my troubles
Drown 'em in the deep blue sea.”
—from the album L.A. Woman by The Doors
A recent Gallup Poll found that a mere 38% of Americans believe that our nation is moving in the right direction—which is sad. However, this represents a 12 year high for this number—which is astonishing. Rarely have Americans been so discontented for so long.
A 12 year trip back in time brings us to the halcyon days of 2006. George W. Bush was finishing his second term as President, and the "hope and change" presidency of Barack Obama was still two years in the future. The failure of a comprehensive immigration reform bill led to massive protests, a deranged man killed 5 girls at an Amish schoolhouse, Iran and America were locked in a standoff regarding Iran's nuclear weapons program, North Korea was developing missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, Israel and Hezbollah were shooting at one another, and terrorist plots were launched and foiled. Seems familiar, doesn't it?
The Democrats won big in the midterm elections that year. In 2006 voters were punishing President Bush over the bloody war in Iraq. This year Democrats hope President Trump's views on immigration, world trade, and polite conversation will lead to a repeat of their success at the ballot box.
These past twelve years have featured the global economic meltdown of the Great Recession, two Presidential terms for Barack Obama, the rise of identity politics and Social Justice Warriors, the growth of a pervasive surveillance state, stark income inequality, gay marriage, a broad decline in civility coupled with an increase in rage, skyrocketing costs for life's essentials, a growing political divide that has turned into a chasm, the failure of the inevitable and unstoppable Clinton campaign in 2016, a surprising summit with North Korea, endless investigations, escalating national debt, a slow motion national pension crisis, and the mutating growth of a form of entertainment known as the Kardashians.
If you ask ten different people, you will probably hear ten different explanations for the level of angst and anger that seems to now be the background music of American life. Perhaps the only comfort we can take is that unhappiness seems to have become a global phenomenon. People in many other nations seem frustrated for a wide variety of reasons—only some of which connect with our own concerns in America.
One could write a book—or many books—detailing the possible reasons for what ails the United States and its people at the present time, but I do have a theory that I believe provides a framework that explains a great deal: Many people now feel that their lives are beyond their own control, and this loss of control stems from two main sources: money and government.
First of all, despite living in the wealthiest nation in the world, we are more and more becoming debt slaves in order to finance the escalating costs of housing, education, and medical care. Our financial futures can now be destroyed by a balloon payment on a mortgage, a student loan, or an illness—and the damage this causes today can stalk us throughout our lives in the form of ruined credit, aggressive debt collectors, and seized tax refunds. In perhaps the most perverse twist of all, many Americans now end up in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay court-ordered fines, which basically means many Americans are being incarcerated for the singular crime of being too poor to live. Except for the elite and connected few, we have truly lost control of our economic destinies as debt has washed over us—on both a personal and national level.
Moreover, multinational corporations now devastate the economies of entire communities by deciding to uproot a factory or office because they believe larger profits can be found with cheap labor overseas. For those companies that continue to try to thrive in the U.S., wolves in hedge fund manager's clothing often devour their thriving businesses and spit the bare bones into bankruptcy court when they are done. The average worker is always the one who takes it on the chin; the top executives and hedge fund honchos take their bonuses and buyouts and hit the beach while those left behind form a line at the local food pantry.
In addition, government continues to circumscribe—many might say strangle—our lives. More and more laws, rules, and regulations are enforced to shut down dissent and empower officials who want to dictate where we can live, what we can say, how we can raise our children, how our faith can be expressed, what we can buy, what ideas and information we can share, what natural resources we can consume, what we can eat, what we can drink, what we can smoke, what we can drive, what schools our children can attend, what we can throw in the trash—and even whether we can burn our own leaves in the fall.
Of course, not a single government mandate is actually intended to make us miserable; they are, after all, promulgated to promote the “greater good”. However, their cumulative weight and intrusiveness—combined with government officials and experts who sometimes seem utterly oblivious to the needs and wants of the average person—is at turns annoying and maddening.
Given the many traumas we are repeatedly told the presidency of Donald Trump is inflicting on our nation, it seems odd that we have now hit a 12 year high—albeit a low one—regarding our attitudes toward the direction of our country. I do not believe this is because Mr. Trump's policies are universally popular—they most decidedly are not. However, it seems to me that the pollsters and pundits are still failing to understand the populist fervor he has engendered among those who want—more than anything—to feel they can live their lives as they choose.
More than a bit of this voter enchantment with President Trump is, quite frankly, completely illogical. A billionaire populist is an obvious contradiction, and some of his avowed policies may, in fact, end up harming those who are is his most fervent supporters. However, he is perceived to be a man who fights back against the lousy and corrupt status quo, and this is a welcome relief for Americans who believe they have been kicked around for far too long. Despite the disdain of the media and entertainment elite toward Mr. Trump, voters are still standing in line for twelve hours for the chance to hear him speak, and they cheer him with the lusty enthusiasm of people whose faith has yet to be blunted by a sneering editorial in The Washington Post.
The perception of many of Mr. Trump's supporters is that he is swinging hard—and landing body blows—against those who have long presumed to control their lives. Every obscene or snotty celebrity or news media rant only strengthens their belief that he is their champion, and every pugnacious tweet he sends our berating his opponents thrills their downtrodden souls. Those who cluck at his language and demeanor fail to understand that he is daily reinforcing the hardcore allegiance of those who neither drive a Prius nor ever plan to attend a performance of Hamilton on Broadway.
President Trump will never win over the most rarefied strata of our society, but his words and actions are giving hope to those who have long felt that control of their lives has been stolen from them by unknown and uncaring forces—and no one with a lick of good sense should ever dismiss the power and persistence of those who feel their hope finally has been restored.